Jenna Wortham on how podcasting helped her find her voice

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Jenna Wortham, who co-hosts The New York Times culture podcast Still Processing podcast with critic-at-large Wesley Morris, on how presenting a podcast taught her to trust in her own views. 

It started at a party. My podcast co-host, Wesley Morris, then an acquaintance, was wearing a tuxedo, which I found hilarious because we were just at a bar in Brooklyn. But, even then, we were both holding court all night. 

When he started working at The New York Times, where I was a technology reporter (I’m now a staff writer for the The New York Times Magazine), he asked me to come on board with the podcast Still Processing.

Originally, I thought, ‘Hell no.’ It sounded like more work. And it sounded like work I wouldn’t get paid for. But then he made it sound irresistible. As a reporter, you’re often working by yourself, alone in a room until you turn your piece in. This was a rare chance for me to learn from someone who won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism. 

It was never our explicit goal to explore queer, black perspectives on the podcast, but it came by virtue of us being two black, queer people. When it came to the artwork for Still Processing, it was a joint decision for it to show our faces. We wanted people to look at it and know that these are the kind of people who work at The New York Times. This is who cultural critics are: two young, black, queer folks.

I had a lot of anxiety in the beginning. I’d only ever worked as a reporter; I hadn’t fully developed my critical lens for culture. It was hard to trust myself to sit in a room and talk about it with someone who had won a prize for it. I had to do a lot of work on my self-worth. On trusting my own viewpoint. On speaking out loud. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to work out your opinions in real time in front of other people, and I don’t know that our society inherently equips most women with the tools for it. 

But then I started to get feedback from listeners. A lot of them told me that my viewpoints affirmed their own. That it’s helped them work through difficult emotions, world events and culturally tense moments. This became a benevolent feedback loop that ultimately gave me more confidence as a grounding force and base to operate from.

Self-care is also the thing that makes it possible. I recently came across a video of Florence Griffiths Joyner, who was a black American runner from LA and the fastest woman in the world. She was talking about how she prepares herself mentally before she goes out into the world physically. She would look at herself in the mirror and said, “I love who I am, I love what I am, I love me.”

It sounds cheesy, but think about it – this is a woman who ran in front of the entire world in the 1980s when people had narratives about who black people were and who they could be. She wore long acrylic nails, kept her natural hair and wore neon and silver running suits. She was unapologetically herself. 

We recently did an episode about HBO’s The Watchman and the way in which we don’t have language for dealing with the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade and how it can’t just be people of colour who acquire that language. I loved the episode about working through our feelings on Michael Jackson; his story is a complex issue within American culture. We also devoted an entire episode to talking about Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella.

I’ve started to see the podcast as a container for difficult feelings. And as hosts, we’re maybe even doulas for grief, alchemists for pain. There is something really interesting about just sitting in a room and acknowledging that shit feels crazy. That we’re being gaslighted by the person running the United States. And telling the people who are directly impacted by his policy changes that we care. 

The moment I understood the podcast’s impact was when I was in a bookshop in Paris. A black Parisian woman recognised me and told me how important it was to her. It showed me how much we were speaking to people who needed to be seen, and I felt the podcast could function as a means of care. Amy Sherald, the artist who painted the portrait of Michelle Obama in the Smithsonian, said she listens to us while she paints. We keep people company.

Now, we sell out 1,000-person venues for live podcasts, too, which is wild. We went to Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival last April and filled an entire auditorium of people. I’m like, “Do you all know who we are?” And they’re like, “Yes!” 

Part of the journey has been learning to trust my intuition and the fact that black culture matters. When we were in Australia, all anyone wanted to talk about was Kanye West and I could feel the impact black American culture has on the world. That’s the core of why I wanted to be a journalist and podcaster: to make people feel less alone. 

YARA SAYS:

Jenna Wortham is a journalist who has a really nice take on popular culture and she’s so well versed in it. I love listening to what she has to say on Still Processing

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Photography: New York Times

Images: Instagram

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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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